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Inflation

Summary:
(Traveling and unable to provide a technical overview this week.) Rising price pressures, stronger and more persistent than generally expected, has been the main challenge for consumers, businesses, and policymakers. It will stay top of mind in the week ahead as both the world's two largest economies, the US and China, report July consumer and producer prices.  During the Great Depression, the central governments discovered their balance sheets, and budget deficits became a nearly permanent fixture. This is true even for countries like Germany, which ostensibly shunned Keynesian demand management and embraced "ordo-liberalism." During the Global Financial Crisis, the central bank balance sheet was called into action as policy rates hit zero (and fell into

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Inflation

(Traveling and unable to provide a technical overview this week.) 

Rising price pressures, stronger and more persistent than generally expected, has been the main challenge for consumers, businesses, and policymakers. It will stay top of mind in the week ahead as both the world's two largest economies, the US and China, report July consumer and producer prices.  

During the Great Depression, the central governments discovered their balance sheets, and budget deficits became a nearly permanent fixture. This is true even for countries like Germany, which ostensibly shunned Keynesian demand management and embraced "ordo-liberalism." During the Global Financial Crisis, the central bank balance sheet was called into action as policy rates hit zero (and fell into negative territory for the members of the eurozone, Switzerland, a few other European countries, and Japan).  

After the Great Financial Crisis, many monetarists and hard-money folks warned of ruinous inflation, which did not materialize. Instead, inflation has soared over the past year or so for most high-income and emerging market countries. The hard-money and monetarists say they told us so. Yet, it took a pandemic of biblical proportions to spur inflation and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, there seems to be no correlation between the size of the central bank's balance sheet (as a percent of GDP), government deficit spending during and after the pandemic, and the subsequent inflation.

The Bank of Japan's balance sheet is nearly 135% of GDP. The Fed's balance sheet is about 36.5% of GDP. The ECB's balance sheet is almost 69% of GDP. Japan's central government debt is more than 2.3-times larger than its GDP. In proportionate terms, US debt is less than half as much as Japan's. The eurozone's debt-to-GDP is a little more than 95%. Consider fiscal policy. The cumulative budget deficit in the US for 2020 and 2021 was a stunning 26.4% of GDP. The deficit in the eurozone was less than half the size (12.2%). Japan's was almost 16% of GDP.  

We will likely learn next week that the July US CPI (year-over-year) fell below the preliminary EMU reading of 8.9%. The median forecast in the Bloomberg survey sees a 0.2% month-over-month gain, which given the base effect, would be consistent with an 8.8% year-over-year rate.  Energy prices have pulled back.  Sept WTI fell 5.3% in June and and another 4.3% in July.  It is off almost 10% so far this month.  The average price of retail gasoline fell 13% in July.  

Japan's headline CPI was a modest 2.4% in June. The BOJ's last meeting concluded the day before the June CPI was reported. Its updated forecast put this year's CPI at 2.4% before falling back to 1.3%-1.4% for the next two years. Do not be mistaken. The BOJ's forecasts are not an outlier. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg are also convinced Japan's inflation is temporary. The median forecast is a 1.2% rise in CPI next year, followed by a 0.8% increase in 2024.  

Conventional wisdom is that monetary policy will not change until Governor Kuroda steps down next April. The inflation forecasts, if accurate, suggest the new governor will find that the deflation demon has not been slain after all. Although the BOJ's policy rate is -0.1%, it has been trading at -0.009%. The swaps market has it at 0.01% in a year, 0.07% in two years, and 0.11% in three years.  

After arguably waiting too long to get going, the Federal Reserve has stepped up its game. It persuaded many, even if not everyone, that it is so determined to bring inflation down that it is willing to risk an economic contraction. This is important because it shows that inflation expectations are anchored. Consider the 10-year breakeven peaked in mid-April a little above 3.05% and fell to the year's low slightly below 2.27% a few weeks ago. It is now hovering in narrow band around 2.50%.  In the middle of last month, the two-year breakeven fell to 2.85%, the lowest since October 2021. It popped back to around 3.25% but is approaching the low again.  Recall it peaked shortly after the first rate hike was delivered in March 16, near 5%.  Doesn't this say something about the Fed's anti-inflation credibility? 

While the breakevens have been consolidating, we note the correlation between the changes in the 10-year yield breakeven and oil prices increased to almost 0.60 over the past 30 days, the highest in more than three months. The correlation between the changes in oil and the US two-year breakeven is around 0.83, the highest since the end of 2020. Surely, most observers would agree that whatever attenuated relationship there may be between fiscal and monetary policy on one hand and oil prices on the other, it is overshadowed by several other factors.

Last week, the Bank of England warned that inflation was likely to peak near 13%. That is twice as much as it anticipated at the end of last year when it began its tightening cycle. The main culprit is not monetary or fiscal variables but the supply shock from the energy sector. The BOE is also the first major central bank to acknowledge a recession. Indeed, it warns that the economy will contract for five consecutive quarters, which does not include the second quarter. The UK reports Q2 GDP on August 12, and the median forecast (Bloomberg survey) is for a small contraction.  

Nevertheless, the  BOE is clearly determined to continue to tighten monetary policy. Governor Bailey is cagey about the pace of hikes going forward, like many other central banks, including the Fed, ECB, and the Reserve Bank of Australia. Yet, the market remains fairly convinced that the central BOE will hike rates by at least another 100 bp in the last three meetings of the year. The BOE is also the first major central bank to announce intentions of actively selling some of its sovereign and corporate bond holdings to shrink its balance sheet quicker than the passive approach of allowing maturing issues to roll off.  

The cottage industry of critics put the Federal Reserve in a "damned if they do and don't if they don't" box. First, many wanted the central bank to be more aggressive than even the hawks at the Fed advocated. Then as the economy slows, they are among the first to condemn the Fed for inducing a recession. Endless fodder for the large pipes that deliver the streaming news.  

We have staked out a middle ground between those pundits and cynics who have been saying the US is in a recession for a few months and several Fed officials who suggest there is little sign of a broad economic slowdown. Yet, even Powell acknowledges the path to a soft landing is getting narrower. While recognizing we live in a probabilistic world, we see the odds of a soft-landing as minuscule at best. 

It is not just because of monetary policy, which is tightening aggressively. Indeed, after the stronger than expected employment report, which saw a new cyclical low in the unemployment rate (3.5%) and the strongest jobs growth in five months (528k), the Fed funds futures were discounting around a 75% chance of another 75 bp hike at next month's meeting that concludes on September 21. The 2-10-year yield curve is inverted by the most since 2000 (almost 40 bp).  Fiscal policy is tightening too, and aggressively at that. The OECD projects government spending to fall by 0.1% this year. The median forecast in Bloomberg's survey is for the budget deficit to fall to 4.4% of GDP this year from 10.8% last year. The two-month 25% slide in oil prices is helpful for the soft-landing scenario, but they have still doubled since early 2021, which proceeded the end of the last few business cycles.  

Also, the inventory cycle has matured, and from a tailwind last year, it has turned into a headwind. If it weren't for the inventory adjustment, the US economy would have expanded in H1. The good news here is that the drag from inventories may be winding down. Another drag that may replace it is that some sectors that saw strong demand during the pandemic may have built too and cut back. Given that it was slow to take its foot off the accelerator, the Fed's biggest mistake would be to declare victory too early. This risk-reward assessment also injects a human element into the risks of a hard-landing. 

The July CPI should offer some comfort that inflation, which jumped in Q2, is steadying at the start of Q3. After rising by 1.0% in May and 1.3% in June, the July CPI is expected to edge up by 0.2%. If so, it would match the smallest monthly increase since November 2020. It would also be consistent with a small decline in the year-over-year rate, which has only happened one other time since last August (in April). However, the core rate may tick up. The median forecast (Bloomberg survey) sees a 0.6% increase, which is the average over the last nine months. This would produce the first increase in the year-over-year core CPI since March. It peaked then at 6.5% and fell to 5.9% in June.  

The market still expects the Fed to raise rates aggressively and double the pace of the roll-off from its balance sheet starting next month. The market is now looking for the Fed to hike rates by 125 bp in the last three meetings of the year. Look at what has happened. The year-end Fed funds rate has mostly been between 3.25% and 3.50% for the past two months. It pushed through the upper end after the jobs report.  

Moreover, the Fed's hawkish rhetoric and the jobs report did not manage to dissuade the market from pricing in a cut in the Fed funds rate next year.  Even if the terminal rate is a bit higher than the market previously thought, it seems more confident of a rate cut in H2 23.  Specifically, the implied yield of the December 2023 Fed funds futures is about 33 bp below the yield of the December 2022 contract.  Over the course of the week the chances of a cut in Q3 23 were downgraded. At the end of July, the September Fed funds yielded 32 bp less than the December 2022 contract. It closed last week at  a 12 bp discount.  

The team of economists at ITC found that since 1990, the first Fed cut has come on average 10.6 months after the last hike. It is in a range of five months to 18 months. If the market is right and the Fed finishes its tightening this year, or even early next year, it appears to be pricing in a fairly typical gap.  

Much to the chagrin of some of the Fed's critics that put the hawks at the Bundesbank to shame, the market is confident that the economy will reach a point later this year or early next year that will prompt the Fed to ease off its drive. This is the real meaning of the central bank put. They will not pursue the old Mellon recommendation:  liquidate, liquidate, and liquidate. The hawks do not have a constituency for it. And that seems global, not just limited to the US. But, of course, like playing three-card Monty, it always looks easy from the sidelines.  

China's inflation will be reported after it its reserves (lower), trade surplus (smaller), and lending figures (less). The June CPI was at 2.5% year-over-year, roughly the midpoint seen since the onset of Covid (-0.5%-5.4%). It is expected to have edged up to 2.8% in July. The recovery in pork prices led to the acceleration in food inflation (2.9% vs. 2.3%). The core measure, which excludes food and energy, rose 1.0% year-over-year in June from 0.9% in April and May.   Meanwhile, China's PPI is expected to lurch down, possibly below 5%, to its lowest level since March 2021. It peaked at 13.5% last October, and the decline in July will be the ninth consecutive monthly decline.

The subdued price pressures may give the PBOC room to ease policy, but it seems to be in no rush. It is encouraging lending and has offered some fiscal support. It has been mild. There appears to be a window to ease policy in the next couple of weeks. Liquidity conditions have tightened due to several factors, including PBOC draining operations and tax payments, and on August 16, a CNY600 bln medium-term lending facility matured. There are several ways that the PBOC could provide more liquidity, including a new medium-term lending facility, reverse repos, and a cut in reserve requirements.  



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Marc Chandler
He has been covering the global capital markets in one fashion or another for more than 30 years, working at economic consulting firms and global investment banks. After 14 years as the global head of currency strategy for Brown Brothers Harriman, Chandler joined Bannockburn Global Forex, as a managing partner and chief markets strategist as of October 1, 2018.

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